The Uses of Patriotism

I don’t know about the rest of you, but speaking from the provincial corner of Central Europe where I happen to be sitting at the moment, I found the inauguration rather moving. We get CNN—even the next-door village, where the roads haven’t been repaired since the war, gets CNN—so we watched the swearing-in, the speech, a bit of the parade. And although a hardened, dedicated expat, I confess to having felt a twinge of pride. All those words about citizenship and the American Story; all those high-school bands, all those waving flags.

It also reminded me of just how directly all these things depend upon one another. You can’t have “citizens” unless you have a state—a state to which the citizens feel a firm loyalty. And loyalty, in turn, depends upon civic patriotism. In a democracy, the bands and the flags and the historical references help to create the set of emotions that in turn inspire people to vote, to work for the government, to participate in public life.

To Americans, I suppose, this seems too obvious to explain. But it isn’t obvious to everyone. Certainly over here in Europe, “patriotism,” even the mild sort of flag-waving one gets on national holidays, is most definitely out of fashion in many places. Not that long ago, I found myself sitting with some British journalists in a BBC studio in London, watching a broadcast of the Opening of Parliament, the day when the queen, after parading through London in a carriage, gets symbolically locked out of the House of Commons. She then makes a speech on behalf of the government, describing what legislation is planned for the following year. Just as I was thinking how admirable it all was—this tradition that reminds the British of who holds the power in their constitutional monarchy—one of the other journalists in the studio spoke up. “I can hardly watch this anymore,” he said, “all of this phony medieval rubbish makes me ill.”

It’s not, in Britain, an uncommon sentiment. The problem is, once you remove the “medieval rubbish,” once you stop flying the flag—and no one does, in Britain—then what have you got left? And for how long can you still have democracy? Listen to Tony Blair, who has, throughout his nearly four years in office, referred repeatedly and rather bizarrely to Britain as a “new young country,” has said that “no one cares about the past anymore, except for nostalgia,” and has gone on to abolish a series of British institutions without thinking or appearing to care much about what would take their place. On the grounds that it was undemocratic, he reformed the House of Lords, Britain’s upper parliamentary chamber, removing the hereditary peers—and replacing them, equally undemocratically, with his friends and cronies. On the grounds that Scottish nationalists were taking votes away from the Labor Party, he also started to pick apart the Union of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, creating a Scottish parliament and a Welsh assembly. Now the nation’s football hooligans have started calling for English independence. It is perfectly possible that within the next few decades, Britain itself will cease to exist.

And not only Britain. For different reasons, Germans also long to discard their embarrassing national identity: A recent New York Times article quoted a German politician saying that “I even have great difficulty singing the national anthem.” Although I can see why some might find that cheering in the case of Germany, it hasn’t done much good for democracy there either. Germans are so anxious to cease to be Germans that they have spent the past several decades leading the rest of Europe into a European Union that is run by appointed bureaucrats: Decisions about the most intimate aspects of life in France, Spain, or Holland are now taken in Brussels by unelected people who owe nothing in particular to the French, the Spanish, or the Dutch. The European parliament is a weak and in some ways silly institution—its members must travel constantly between Brussels and Strasbourg—and no one shows much interest, so far, in making it more powerful.

The state of patriotism in the Eastern half of the continent is even worse. Way back in 1989, when the Soviet Union first broke up, the primary concern of Western diplomats was to halt the “nationalism” then feared to be spreading throughout the Eastern half of the continent. How different things seem now. From Warsaw to Vladivostok, the real challenge to the newly democratic governments has proved not to be ethnic nationalism, but rather the venal post-Communist elites who, filled with scorn for the people whose nationality they happen to share, are doing their best to rob their respective nations of whatever wealth they might possess. In some places the problems have taken on peculiar forms: With little feeling for the Russian Federation itself, the Russians are bringing back symbols of Soviet imperialism, like the old Soviet national anthem (click here to read my previous article about it) to make themselves feel better.

I can’t say that any particular policy prescriptions follow from these observations, since I don’t believe it is up to the American government to further other people’s patriotism. But it’s something to keep in mind, now that we appear to be permanently in the business of spreading democracy. You can help write a constitution, you can send in election observers, you can refuse IMF money to those who persist in shutting down their national newspapers, but you can’t force people to love their country or force them to feel like its citizens. How lucky are Americans, so many of whom do so without thinking twice.